Thirty years. For 30 long and agonising years, the red half of a city and its millions of followers from around the world waited.
It was never supposed to be this long, this painful and this complicated.
Before the modernity of the English Premier League, before the £100 000-a-week players, before social media and trending, before tiki-taka or TikTok, Liverpool Football Club were the Beatles with a ball at their feet.
And then the music stopped.
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away
Oh, I believe in yesterday
The hit Beatles’ song is an apt metaphor for the long-lost love affair between Liverpool and the league title. They used to kiss it so often that they felt entitled to sing that they had their trophy back during the 1970s and 1980s.
Eleven titles in those two decades, along with four European marches to glory, might have made it seem that their dominance would last forever. The Kop was a den of rapture, a freak of nature that sucked in goals and ignited souls, and turned Anfield into the loudest amphitheatre in the world.
When you walk around the city of Liverpool, you are reminded that it is truly a working-class city. Away from the bustling docks and newly built skyscrapers of the 21st century, the hustle of its people is as brutally frank as the Irish Sea gusts that routinely whip through the streets.
It is a city that has suffered and endured, often mocked for its rough-and-ready approach to life but always capable of gathering much of that emotion into the melting pot that was their football stadium. And the longer the drought lasted, the prouder those who threw their lot in with them were to call themselves Red.
Blood Red. Loud Red. Stumbling Red. Proud Red. Liverpool Red.
Those old enough to have enjoyed the glory decades in their youth have had to endure the miserable 1990s and millennium, with its increasingly loud shouts from up the road in Manchester.
Return to the ‘fucking perch’
After a succession of Scottish heroes dominating Anfield and the touchline, Liverpool watched forlornly as longtime Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson made good on his promise to “knock Liverpool right off their fucking perch”.
Those words in 2002 were proved true by 2011, when United overtook Liverpool’s seemingly unbeatable 18 titles. Ferguson made it to 20 titles before he was done in 2013, while Liverpool scratched their heads and searched their souls more than two decades into the club’s football famine.
They did have Europe, though. They always had Europe.
That crazy night in Istanbul ensured that the candle of hope wasn’t completely extinguished by Fergie’s relentless march through the history books. On that night in May 2005, when Steven Gerrard dragged a club and a city from the grave and into a level of continental aristocracy that no other British club could touch, Liverpudlian hope walked on.
When you look at the player list from 1990 to this day, it holds more than 200 names who tried and fell short of landing the league. These were hardly journeymen, either. Michael Owen. Robbie Fowler. Gerrard. Xabi Alonso. Fernando Torres. Luis Suarez. Philippe Coutinho. Raheem Sterling.
Gerrard’s tale is the most wrenching. A Liverpool lad who became the Liverpool captain, chasing the Liverpool dream to relive the glory days that left him wide-eyed as a young boy. He and then manager Rafa Benitez nearly got there in 2009, but the manager dubbed the Spanish Waiter got distracted by “facts” in the mind games against Ferguson, lost his nerve and the title wait continued into a third decade.
The pain got even more twisted.
Gerrard’s slip in 2014 against Chelsea was as public and personal as a sporting catastrophe can get. Even neutral fans winced as he and that great team somehow lost their nerve and let the title get away.
The Normal One’s impact
The Kop’s greatest hit insists that “you will never walk alone”, but perhaps the city’s greatest-ever player felt lonelier than ever. Gerrard admits even now that the horror of that moment visits his thoughts every day. He was the epitome of the club, the heartbeat.
It still hurts, still haunts. Every day.
If he, their Superman with a thunderbolt for a right foot, couldn’t rouse the Reds to glory, what prayer did they have for the future?
Enter their modern Bill Shankly, a bespectacled German who insisted that he was nothing special. That he was merely The Normal One upon arrival in 2015. Clark Kent, if you will.
The only thing remotely normal about Klopp is his middle name, Norbert. The rest? Rock star.
A club and a manager need to see the world through the same lens to be successful over a long period of time. Chancers get lucky, but dynasties are built on consistency and clarity. With Jurgen Klopp and his modern Liverpool, you get the sense that this may be just the beginning.
Liverpool players and fans quickly realised that he was anything but normal. Helpfully, so did the owners. Klopp is a madman, as fiercely Scouse as that Whiston scowl made famous by Gerrard, and as riotously Red as the bricks that built the Anfield he now calls home. They will immortalise him in bronze one day, forever to take his place alongside Bob Paisley and Shankly.
Even in his finest hour, Klopp’s first thoughts were for those who had paved the way. He saluted Kenny Dalglish, the last manager to win the league for Liverpool, and then a word for Gerrard. The coveted hero who didn’t abandon his post for easier titles with another shirt on his back.
Liverpool have never forgotten that, and it was a measure of Klopp’s managerial genius that he doffed his cap at a legend who wanted this more than anyone who has worn the Liver bird on his chest. Normal? Klopp will be immortal.
When Liverpool paraded their sixth European title in June last year, partying with a million fans on the streets of their beloved city, Klopp was like a teenage rock star bouncing atop the bus, his joy uncontained.
But like every rowdy Red around him, he was also keen to build on European thrills by addressing domestic shortcomings.
Next year. That was the message. That was the mission. The Champions League victory over Tottenham Hotspur numbed the pain of losing out to Manchester City in the title race, but it didn’t erase the memory or the persistent frustration of another year to wait.
It had been too long. Klopp was still playing in 1990, signing to German club Mainz 05 weeks after Liverpool’s Alan Hansen lifted the league cup. Hansen has since retired as a player, carved out a career as a pundit and retired from that, too, it’s been that long.
Looking at Klopp’s playing staff, James Milner and Adam Lallana are the only regulars who were even alive at the end of Liverpool’s 1989-1990 campaign. Truly, it was a lifetime ago.
But somehow the fans remained resolute. They are a special breed, an unapologetically melancholic mob that greet you with an “All right, kid” regardless of age or rage. It is most certainly all right now.
Ending the jokes
They have said hello to the regal gifts from Egypt, worshipping Mo Salah and the goals he has lavished upon them. They have marvelled at Sadio Mane, whose home town of Sedhiou stops whenever he kicks a ball in professional joy.
They have grinned along with their laddish Brazilian, Roberto Firmino, whose sharpness of smile is usurped only by the brightness of the next few years at his place of work. In Virgil van Dijk, the fans have seen an imperious Dutch fort rise up in front of their goal, with the homegrown hunger of Trent Alexander-Arnold at his side for Scouse comfort.
All right, kid.
Liverpool have welcomed these gifts from around the world and round the corner, nurtured them and then waited as they’ve collectively paid back that faith. And then some. The Covid-19 pandemic threatened to derail the club, but it has eventually proved to be a reminder that nothing can ever be taken for granted.
Liverpool, after all that waiting, have won the league at the earliest time of asking, with seven games to spare.
The football gods have a sense of humour, too, as they decreed that it would be Chelsea who handed the title to the Reds, and ensured that they received guard of honour at the Etihad Stadium. Liverpool have won their title in fine style, with breathtaking enterprise, ruthless defence and a voracious trio upfront.
They might not get to have the party that would top 2019’s little do after Madrid just yet, but they get a lot more besides. Pubs are scheduled to open again in England on 4 July and you can imagine the carnage on that day in Liverpool.
Finally, they are no longer the butt of jokes about things that have happened since they last lifted the league cup. Peter Schmeichel and his son winning the league. The Spice Girls. The Spice Boys. The arrival of cellphones. Laptops. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram.
The eternal tick of three decades of waiting will tock no more. In the unflinchingly Red reaches of northwest England, where football means more than most things in life, the advancements of man and machine have finally come full circle and reset all that is good to a world with a few words that used to be very familiar.
Liverpool, champions of England.
As one former manager might gleefully say, that is a fact.